the south is where his heart is

Thom Driver came into my life around 2000. Our agency was just over a year old and we had made the big decision to move into a newly renovated warehouse space in the FloatAway district in Atlanta. We hired this great gal and her company to paint the giant walls and I walked into the space as painting got underway to meet the gang and there was Thom, sitting cross-legged on the floor, painting a wall peacefully, just having the most interesting conversations with everyone around him, as he always does. At that time, his floral design business, Root, was also taking off and we ended up working together on a number of fun projects over the years. We knew then, as we know now, that he was an amazing talent. Then Thom lit out for New York City and we lost touch. But by pure coincidence we reconnected last month when I saw an acknowledgement for Thom in the new Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook. “Well, of course Thom would be in here,” I thought, smiling to myself. I emailed authors Brent and Josh at Beekman Farm that very day and asked if they could put me in touch with Thom, and within two hours I got an email from him. The next day we met up near Dylan’s Candy Store in New York for coffee, and we probably chatted there for about two hours.

Today, Thom’s a successful stylist based in NYC and he’s done work with Louis Vuitton, Elle Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Life, Saveur, Garden and Gun, Country Living (check out the November pie cover…that’s his!), Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and, oh, so much more. You can see more of his work here. But soon Thom will be expanding his business down South again. His firm, Driver-Phillips with friend Kim Phillips, will be launching soon (details to come) and they’ve already got a gig with Miller Union and more.

One of the best parts about our line of work is the amazing talent we come in contact with, and we can’t wait to start working with Thom again. I caught up with him one Sunday morning by phone for this interview and we chatted, laughed, sipped coffee and shared our dreams for almost an hour. Read on for some highlights. 🙂

Over a year ago, you took a ‘Radical Sabbatical’ at the Beekman Farm in Sharon Springs, N.Y. What did you bring back from that experience?

I feel really lucky. It was just a chance meeting and when I met Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Dr. Brent Ridge we had talked about our love of country and they knew I wanted to have some sort of farm life but still live in the city. I was at a point in my life and career that I was desperate to just go garden, play and be in nature. They invited me to come up to the Beekman Farm and be their first “Radical Sabbatical” intern. I had never taken that much time off but I did it. I looked at it as kind of artist residency. Brent and Josh are both so sincere and passionate. Even though they’ve become well known through Beekman 1802 and their Planet Green show, “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” really all of their efforts are just a means to an end, so they can have that country life they love.

What did you love about the experience?

The place is amazing and the community there blew my mind. For me, just taking care of the gardens and the yards for the entire summer was truly incredible. They can literally grow and have everything they want for the entire year. It was so much work and so much commitment but the most gratifying work I’ve ever done—I never felt so happy and satisfied. Being able to haul out of the garden what you’re having for dinner at night, well, that’s as rewarding for me as shooting the cover of GQ magazine.

What was your job like at the Beekman?

I got up around 4:30 a.m. every day. We’d do stuff around the shop (Beekman 1802 in Sharon Springs) then I’d head out to the farm to work in the garden. We just did so many things, like dusting the cheese in the cheese caves and packing it. The connection I feel for those guys is so special. I fell in love with Beekman the way I love the South but, of course, I love the South more because it’s my heart and ultimately where I want to be.

What is it about country life that appeals to you most?

For me, it’s just so necessary. It’s the way I reboot and get inspired to get back to the “real” part of my life. Right now, I’m just trying to figure out what my life will eventually look like. I love the contrast of a city-country life, and being able to recharge yourself in the country. I think for some of us, it’s just a part of who we are. But I also know that right now I need a business to fulfill that dream, to be able to buy some land, sustain it and everything else. I have so much respect for people who are truly farmers. It’s such a commitment and a way of life. Anyone who can actually do it and make it all work, well, I have such respect for them. Eventually, though, I think the country life will take over for me.

You did the photo styling for the just-published Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook. How much fun was that?

Such a beautiful and incredible experience. Paulette Tavorima was the photographer and Paul Grimes was the food stylist. For me it was amazing because Paulette, who also shoots for Sotheby’s, creates the most beautiful photos—they look like little Dutch still lifes.

This was her first cookbook shoot ever. It was very special working with her. We used a lot of old dishes and antiques. For me personally, I adore covered dishes and one day hope to do a cookbook featuring them. I love the randomness of old dishes and what a covered dish supper means. Those kind of meals are so special.

Because this is truly an heirloom cookbook, it was based on the idea of recipes and dishes passed down through generations of families. The book has places for notes, index cards, your own ideas—it’s a true heirloom cookbook. We used a mixture of family treasures, heirlooms, from everyone involved in the project. The result is a keepsake that is truly original and authentic.

Do you hope to have your own farm one day? What would it look like?

Oh my gosh, yes! It would look like a horse barn. On a good five acres or so. It would have the most amazing flower garden. It’d be really simple and easy to manage and a place that sustains itself. And as green as possible. It would be a simple sanctuary from my city life. And it would be in the South!

What gets you through the hardest days?

For me, it’s having another goal. While I love my career and what I do, every day I feel so lucky I get to be a stylist. Even on my worst days, I’m still thrilled to be able to work with some of the best photographers in the world. But still, I have this other dream; that’s what gets me through. Don’t get me wrong. I love living and working where I do; it’s such a privilege to be able to live on the city island of Manhattan. My place in the East Village is like a little bird’s nest up looking up to the sky. But what gets me through difficult challenges always is nature.

What have been some of your favorite styling projects so far?

In terms of soul-fulfilling, my all-time favorite project was with Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin. For this project we created a mini food story/book for Natalie’s clothing line, and we traveled all around Alabama making this oral history with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was life-changing. I met so many beautiful, random people—like the woman who was rolling out peach dumplings on her kitchen table using only a can. And this incredible farm that had 300 acres with the most amazing food ever. Whenever I get to produce my own food shots, it’s always centered around friends and family. So many memories come from these simple country farm moments. There’s a true appreciation for it, a community coming together around the love of food and family.

What are some of the things you love most about New York City?

I consider myself a New Yorker now, but I still feel like such a newbie at times. This city is unique and has its own rules. You can’t compare it to anything else. It’s so diverse. You can literally be standing on a street corner and be surrounded by people who are not at all like you. Everyone is different and that doesn’t happen in many parts of the world. But it happens here. And that’s why New York is so appealing and seductive, and why many people choose to stay.

But when you get outside of New York City, you find it’s not that different from the South. That’s what was so cool about going to Sharon Springs last summer. It reminded me of the South. Nice, hard-working people…a real sense of community. People who work the land. All you have to do is cross the bridge to find those connections.

What are some of the things you love most about the South?

Roots–simply that. It’s where my heart is, my family is. It truly defines me as a person.

What are your plans to expand your styling business down South?

For Driver-Phillips, we’re thinking about creating this unique showroom that’s a place for us to do all the things that we do: styling, design, decorating, floral, events, photo shoots. It’ll be a conceptual showroom that captures everything under our styling business. This is kind of hard to describe but it’ll be a hub for all of our ideas. We love doing so many things; it’s a bit of a challenge to put a label on it, which is exactly why we’re so excited!

Would you change anything about your life right now?

I wouldn’t trade it for a second. It’s the life I’ve always wanted. I could have stayed in Atlanta and had a successful career there, but in New York you can be anything. I was so lucky to have found an agent that understood me—he just got it immediately and we’ve been together six years.

Tell us about Chicky.

Chicklet Driver (a 12-year-old pug) is the love of my life. I’ve never loved anything more.  She’s my support, my unconditional love. She’s a rescue; I got her when I lived in Cabbagetown in Atlanta. She made the move to New York with me. Yes, she’s a southern girl at heart and she had to get used to things like wearing sweaters in winter and little booties when we go for a walk in the park or out on the ice and salt, but she’s totally adjusted now and is such the little city dog. But like me, she can easily go back to being a country dog. She knows the word “farm” by heart and pricks up her ears whenever she hears me say it and then she’s ready to go!


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